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March 2009

A Chicken in Every Pot
by Michael Ballon

At the start of the last Great Depression almost a century ago, candidate Herbert Hoover promised both "a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage". It is not clear whether the present hard times will be as severe as the last one, but nonetheless there is something profoundly comforting about the idea of a chicken in a pot. Obama talked about a new kind of car in the garage, but as comforting as he was, he never mentioned the chicken dinner.

Although a huge portion of the world survives on a few grains of rice or beans, and only dreams of being able to eat a chicken, that is still something most Americans have no trouble affording. Over 30 years later I still recall the theory of social justice developed by an old high school history teacher. In the midst of the student anti war rallies, the rise of The Black Panthers and The Weathermen, he announced that there would never be a revolution in this country as long as most people could go home at night and have a chicken dinner. Thirty years later he remains correct. The Bolsheviks following Lenin and the guerrilla fighters supporting Fidel in the hills of Cuba no doubt were hungrier.

Certain types of food are archetypical, and exist in many different cultures. Ravioli, periogi, steamed dumplings are all variations on the same thing. Chicken in a pot is no different. Whether cooked in red wine as in coq au vin, or tomatoes and vegetables like chicken cacciatore, or in a Mongolian hot pot with broth, noodles, and vegetables, or with red beans and rice, or perhaps curry and coconut milk and or tamarind, chicken stewed in a pot can be found in the cuisine of a wide variety of cultures, and seems to satisfy a primal urge. While the grilling outside is an appealing way to cook in summer, in the cold dark months of winter the bouquet of simmering food over a fire is what comforts us.

Not everybody connects to this primitive archetypal food. The current rage among devotees of revolutionary Spanish Chef Fernan Adria, is to “molecularly deconstruct” food. That’s the term they use to refer to what they do-not “cooking.” In their hands, parts of a chicken might be flash frozen with liquid nitrogen, ground up, and turned into a powder, while other parts might be made into a foam, while still other pieces might be combined with gelatin to turn into a noodle. Nor would he preclude using chicken in dessert. In the end you might not recognize anything you were eating as chicken.

I remain hopelessly retro, and attracted to those primal comforting meals which are so satisfying to me. We are all in for some rough times ahead, and many have seen their retirement accounts and jobs disappear. Never have we needed a chicken in the pot as much as we do now.

Chicken in Sweet Vermouth

The classic French version of coq au vin uses dry red wine to braise the chicken in, typically Burgundy, Beaujolais, or a Rhone wine. Local regional chefs are partial to the wine of their particular area, and will argue that their rendition is the truest or most authentic version. And while chicken braised in dry red wine is delicious, using a sweeter wine like red vermouth gives an very different flavor, and one I prefer. It’s just another variation on coq au vin. You can't be stingy with the wine, the chicken must be almost completely submerged in the wine, so it will certainly require at least one full bottle to cook a chicken. The alcohol cooks off almost completely in the cooking process, so you needn't be concerned about getting hung over from this dish. What remains is the pleasantly sweet taste of the wine which makes for a moist and hearty dinner.

Chicken Braised in Sweet Vermouth

1 Spanish onion (or pearl onions)
2 large carrots
1 Tablespoon minced garlic
1 whole chicken, cut in quarters
1 bottle sweet vermouth
bay leaf
salt and pepper
cornstarch (optional)

1. In a heavy bottomed casserole dish, lightly brown the onion in a little olive oil or butter. Cook over medium heat until golden.

2. Add the chicken in skin side down and brown for about 2 minutes on each side.

3. Add the carrot and garlic, salt and pepper, and stir and brown for 1 minute.

4. Add the vermouth, and cover the pot with a lid

5. Bake at 350 for about 1 hour.

6. Remove the chicken and vegetables from the pot with a slotted spoon.. Skim off any fat or grease from the top of the sauce. If you prefer a thicker sauce, dissolve about 2 teaspoons of cornstarch in a little cold water, and stir it into the sauce and heat until the sauce thickens.
Serve with couscous or mashed potatoes.
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